Love, War, and LBJ

Two new volumes signal a reawakening of interest in the former president.

It was eleven o’clock on Wednesday morning, May 27, 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson was finishing a long conversation on the telephone. “I love you, and I’ll be calling you,” he said to … Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.

It was a moment of intimacy, truthfulness, and yes, love between two powerful men. This conversation is one among the many treasures to be found in the just-published Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963–1964, edited by the historian and television commentator Michael Beschloss. As is now generally known, Johnson taped many of his phone calls and private meetings during his years in the White House. In 1993 the Johnson Library in Austin began releasing the tapes. Beschloss has taken on the task of editing and annotating them. In Taking Charge, the first of three volumes, Beschloss has published annotated transcripts of about 10 percent of the tapes Johnson made during his first year in office. The book is intended as source material for scholars and historians, exactly as a collection of a famous person’s letters would be. Beschloss does not interpret. He simply presents the conversations with notes identifying the people, bills before Congress, contemporary events, and so on that are mentioned. Valuable as Taking Charge will be to students of the era, it can be tedious at times for the general reader. But there are enough veins of gold to keep one prospecting on.

Judging just from these tapes, Johnson seems to have had, for all his multitude of staff, advisers, and acquaintances, only four real friends in all the world, only four people to whom he can reveal himself without fear of some betrayal large or small. One is Lady Bird. Another is John Connally, although he and Johnson have a falling out that seems to be quickly patched up. A third is A. W. Moursund, a small-time Hill Country politician, businessman, and domino player who was Johnson’s crony. And the last is Richard Russell, Johnson’s brilliant mentor in the Senate whose career then

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